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  • At the quarter mark of the season, the L.A. offense is humming, the New England defense is bleeding, a Houston rookie is dominating, players are kneeling and fans are booing
  • Sections include: anthem protests upstage Steelers-Ravens; Kirk Cousins readies for Washington-Kansas City clash’; Week 4 awards, 10 Things I Think I Think and much more
By Peter King
October 02, 2017

BALTIMORE — We’re almost 25 percent of the way through the 2017 season (28 of 32 teams have played four of their 16 games as of this morning), and this is what blows me away about the NFL through the first quarter:

• The Rams are the story of the year, with the coach of the first quarter in 31-year-old Sean McVay (nudging Andy Reid) bizarrely turning a moribund offense into the best in the NFL in the first month.

• If you had the Rams, Texans and Jags as three of the four highest-scoring offenses in the league after a quarter of the season, you’re officially very smart about football.

• The President Donald Trump-spawned kneel/sit/stand/fist-raise anthem hullaballoo is the football news story of the first quarter, to be sure. It reached peak hilarity Sunday in Baltimore, when the PA announcer asked the crowd to pray for “kindness, unity, equality and justice” in America, and the Ravens dropped to one knee and bowed their heads in prayer, and this is what happened: “BOOOOOOOOOO!”

Todd Gurley’s resurgence continues as he compiled a career-best 215 yards from scrimmage against the Cowboys.
Michael Ainsworth/AP

• The guru of defensive gurus, Bill Belichick, who might go down as the best defensive coach in history, has the worst D in football.

• Deshaun Watson had led the Texans to 90 points in the past two games, his second and third NFL starts. That’s more points than 16 teams have scored this season.

• The Bills are 3-1. Coach Sean McDermott has made a very big deal (some inside the team would say an obnoxiously big deal) about not turning the ball over. The Bills turned it over on their first possession of the season, a tipped interception. In their 43 possessions since: zero turnovers ... including another clean game in Sunday’s 23-17 upset of Atlanta.

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Three & Out: Bills Sit Alone Atop AFC East After Surprising Victory Over Falcons

• The 86th pick in the draft, Kareem Hunt, leads the NFL in rushing with 401 yards—and he’s the only back among the top 20 rushers to have played in just three games so far, not four.

• The Giants, one of the logical NFC Super Bowl picks in August, are 0-4. They’ve lost two straight games on walkoff field goals.

• Sunday: Buffalo (on the road) 23, Atlanta 17 … Rams (on the road) 35, Dallas 20 … Carolina (on the road) 33, New England 30. In the outlier game: Houston (at home) 57, Tennessee 14. Fifty-seven on a Dick LeBeau team, with a rookie quarterback doing the damage.

“Nobody saw a lot of these coming,” McVay said over the phone from Texas on Sunday afternoon. “But that’s the NFL every year, isn’t it?”


Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling wrap up the Sunday action each Monday morning on “The MMQB: Ten Things” podcast. Subscribe on iTunes.


McVay is scary precocious. It showed in his post-game scrum with the team Sunday, after the Rams walked into Jerry World and beat the Cowboys 35-30. He sounded like a veteran head coach, not one who 11 years ago this week was walking across the Miami campus in Oxford, Ohio, scurrying to class as a senior.

“Love the way you guys continue to compete from first snap to last snap!” he barked, all eyes on him. “Great win! Three-and-one—we accomplished our goal of finishing the first quarter that way. Enjoy it! Love you guys. Love where we’re going.” Then he handed out game balls to kicker Greg Zuerlein (seven of seven on field goal attempts) and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (for beating the team he used to head-coach) … and told Phillips to break the team down, and then snuck out of the way so Phillips could be the center of attention for a few moments.

Not only did it look like McVay had been there before at the ripe old age of 31, but he let Phillips have the moment. Smart move. McVay’s made a lot of those. Like running some involved pass plays for Jared Goff on first downs, when foes are gearing for the run and again-brilliant back Todd Gurley, and when Goff can take advantage of play-action to get some route combinations when he knows he’ll have someone open. “What I like about the offense is I know I’ll always have a receiver open,” Goff told me in training camp. What’s also helped: picking up Sammy Watkins in trade, Robert Woods in free agency and Cooper Kupp in the draft. Along with speedy but heretofore underachieving Tavon Austin, that’s a very good top-four receiver group. McVay’s route combinations create the kind of traffic that ensures Goff will keep seeing open receivers.

“What I’ve appreciated about Jared,” McVay said Sunday, “is that no pressure gets to him. No moment’s felt too big for him, not even today on a stage like this, in this stadium against the Dallas Cowboys. He’s very even-keel.”

Add two veteran linemen—left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan—and Gurley’s impact (596 total yards, seven touchdowns), and you’ve got the kind of difference-making on the ground that the 2016 Rams just didn’t have. Gurley couldn’t breathe last season. “This guy is a hell of a versatile back,” McVay said. “Maybe he’s not [Darren] Sproles as a receiver out of the backfield, but I think he’s excellent in the open field, which is one of the reasons you really want him to catch balls in space.”

NFL
Rams Are ... a Fun Team To Watch? Takeaways from Los Angeles’ 35–30 Win Over Dallas

Also: GM Les Snead was on a cold streak at the end of last season, when he barely survived the ax that got Jeff Fisher. But Whitworth was a superior signing. Sullivan and Woods have become major additions. Snead’s architecture and McVay’s could have the Rams in contention in December, and who’d have thought that would happen with a coach who gets carded in L.A.

Said McVay: “We’re growing. We’re going in the right direction.” To put it mildly.


Think of Houston’s long streak of quarterback futility through two weeks this season: 21 straight games of never scoring 30 points, despite spending $72 million on Brock Osweiler last year, despite trading two first-round picks to acquire Watson this year. But then Watson dueled Tom Brady and put up 33 points in a loss to the Patriots last week, and this week put up a franchise-record 57 in front of a disbelieving home crowd Sunday.

The disbelieving crowd included a disbelieving owner.

“We’ve never had this kind of offense before,” said Bob McNair, who founded the team in 2002. “What was the final—57 points? We’ve never scored 57 points before. That’s sounding more like a basketball game.”

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The Morning Huddle: A Giant Disappointment

The expectation about Watson was probably unfair to begin. When he was drafted, he was transitioning from a wide-open spread scheme at Clemson to a fairly conservative, balanced Bill O’Brien offensive scheme. It was expected that Watson might play at some point this year, but not the majority of the year as long as Tom Savage stayed healthy. But in the summer, during the time the Texans were off before training camp, O’Brien would throw Watson the occasional text with a quiz, to see how far along he was, and how much he’d studied in the spring and early summer. O’Brien marveled at never being able to stump Watson. Maybe we should have expected this. After all, there’s one quarterback in history who’s twice thrown for more than 400 yards against a Nick Saban-coached defense. Only one. Watson.

“He’s seeing a lot of different things—third-down blitzes for the first time, red-area things for the first time,” O’Brien said. “I think he’s made some really good decisions. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s a very calm guy. He’s a very thoughtful guy.”

So far for Watson, he’s started against Cincinnati on a short-week Thursday (win), started against Tom Brady in a Foxboro duel (loss) and at home for the first time against rising Tennessee (43-point win). Next week: The last unbeaten team (at least until Monday night) in the NFL, Kansas City, is at Houston. Every week’s a test with Alabama-like pressure.

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BALTIMORE — Surreal, slightly insane day at the Ravens home stadium.

On the way into a football game, two grown men were dressed as American flags, their faces striped alternately white and red, with a blue panel on their foreheads with white stars. American flags waved from tailgates, Bob Seger and Aerosmith and other classic rock blasted from speakers. Scores of flag T-shirts and patriotic apparel, almost as many as Joe Flacco jerseys.

Twenty minutes before kickoff, to loud applause, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” played inside M&T Bank Stadium, followed by a short crowd chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” A short while later, with each team on its sideline, the PA announcer asked minutes before the kickoff of the biggest rivalry game on the schedule—the hated Steelers were in town—for the crowd to pray “for kindness, for unity, for equality and justice for all Americans.” Most of the Ravens on their sideline kneeled and bowed their heads.

“BOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

The crowd booed kneeling Ravens players bowing their heads in prayer.

The pregame scene was once again an issue of scrutiny in Baltimore.
Getty Images (3)

“We knew it was possible that we would get it,” said Terrell Suggs of the Ravens. The team enraged many of its local fans when, in London last week, in response to President Trump urging owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who does not stand at attention for the anthem, many Ravens took a knee during the anthem.

But this was before the anthem. And this is what it’s come to in the NFL: fans so on edge they have no idea what they’re booing, or why. When you boo prayer, you’ve gone over the edge. Now, maybe the crowd booed, thinking the players were kneeling for the anthem. But the PA announcer spoke pretty clearly about praying for good for all Americans. And the boos came.

A few minutes later, every Raven and every Steeler stood at attention for the anthem. (There also was an Air Force flyover.) No booing then. During the first TV timeout, a serviceman was introduced to massive cheers. During the fourth quarter, seven servicemen appeared on the field, to more cheers.

NFL
Players and Teams Who Protested During National Anthem In Week 4

The theme, at least here, after a rancorous and angry week with fans questioning allegiance to the Ravens, was to hammer home the patriotic and militaristic theme for the afternoon. The crowd ate it up.

And that was for the team that wasn’t in the anthem spotlight this week. Let’s get to the Steelers.

Last week, all but one player, former Army Ranger and starting tackle Alejandro Villanueva, stayed out of sight during the anthem last week in Chicago. On Sunday, 45 uniformed Steelers stood shoulder to shoulder in a perfect line, the only thing separating them a few coaches (who also stood at attention), including head coach Mike Tomlin. And after the Steelers’ convincing and uncharacteristic (for this rivalry) 26-9 pasting of the Ravens, the logical question was: Is it over?

“Who knows?” said Steelers president Art Rooney II, in a relatively subdued Pittsburgh locker room. “Who knows?”

NFL
Cam Turns Back the Clock, Derek Carr Goes Down, Deshaun Watson and the Texans Have Turned It Around, the Stage is Not Too Big for the Rams

The focal point of the media for the past week, Villanueva, hardly appeared happy after this game. It’s hard to say he was even relieved. Those who know him well say he’s a particularly mild-mannered person who hates the spotlight. So to be the major focus for days because he was the one Steeler who didn’t stay out of sight during the anthem last week at Soldier Field … well, it still peeved Villanueva a week later, and even after a rout of his archrivals.

“It’s sad,” he told a few reporters before getting surrounded by a larger group. “I’m tired of having the cameras in my face. We got the Steelers and the Ravens playing, and people are all talking about the pregame procedures … I understand you guys [the media] are trying to make money. In this locker room, we’re trying to win football games.”

I asked Villanueva how he felt being the unwitting face of this controversy for a few days.

“I think in life, you’re not prepared for a lot of things,” he said. “I don’t think you’re prepared to have a kid. I don’t think you’re prepared to get married. I don’t you’re prepared to start one day in the NFL. I think it’s one of those things you have to take in stride and do your best, stick to your family values, stick to the things that you’ve learned throughout your life and try to make the best possible decision.”

Listening to Villanueva, sitting uncomfortably with microphones in his face, you felt for the guy. But he made his position known, and he was lucid, and he was firm.

“I’m not a hero,” he said. “I didn’t do anything in the military that was outstanding. If you were to compare me to my peers, I was average at best. This was a very unfortunate chain of events, and I just tried my best.”

Everyone wants to know the endgame here. When will the wildcat anthem protests end, and what will it take to end them? Get educated by the Don Van Natta/Seth Wickersham story on ESPN and then consider what each side wants. The owners, clearly, want the players to stand at attention for the anthem. The players want the freedom to express their outrage at national events that they feel are getting short-shrift in national dialogue and action. Before Trump spoke up 10 days ago, a group of players was engaged with the league office, including commissioner Roger Goodell, regarding the league paying more attention to the issues of unfair treatment of minorities by law enforcement, and other civil rights concerns. I keep thinking that if the league can make a significant investment (and not just in money) in the matters the players are passionate about and that need attention—Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, for instance, is pushing the revival of the DARE program, which promotes positive interactions between young school kids and police officers—then players will be inclined to work with the league on anthem decorum. I say “work with,” not “stop all anthem protests,” because some players clearly won’t want to make a deal with the league where it appears they were paid off to stop protesting.

It’s a complicated issue. It’s easy to say, “Just stand at attention for the anthem!” Easy, but clearly not what all players will do now, under almost any circumstances.

Kirk Cousins has led Washington to a 19-15-1 record since taking over as starter to begin the 2015 season.
Mark Tenally/AP

Watching Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins against Oakland last week was like watching a clinic of the position, and not just because he completed 25 of 30 passes for 365 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. What was notable was how fast Cousins worked, how fast he made his decisions, how fast he got the ball out—and how he had zero sacred cows. In the first quarter, Cousins’ completions, in order, were thrown to tight end Vernon Davis, wideout Jamison Crowder, running back Chris Thompson, tight end Niles Paul, Crowder, wideout Ryan Grant and wideout Terrelle Pryor. Early in the second quarter, he added rookie running back Samaje Perrine. Entering Monday night’s game against the unbeaten Chiefs, Cousins’ decision-making speed and his eye for every receiver on the field will be a challenge for a defense that likes to throw changeups as much as Andy Reid’s offense does. So we’ve got a great chess match on TV, 2-1 Washington at the lone unbeaten team in the league, 3-0 Kansas City.

“Each week is its own entity,” Cousins said from Virginia the other day. “But we’ve definitely put some good performances together. Kansas City’s so good and so creative, and they’ve obviously got everything rolling now, and it’s Monday night, in a place that’s really hard for road teams to play.”

You’ve got to hand it to Cousins, who is playing his second straight year on the franchise tag because he hasn’t been able to work out a long-term deal with Washington. But to hear him talk about it, he’s pretty much okay with it.

“Look at it rationally,” he said, “and going year to year isn’t as risky as it might appear. Plus, if you’ve lived my life story, where nothing’s been guaranteed to me in college or the NFL, you might understand my approach a little bit better. And I’ve always thought that if you sign a contract, and it’s announced at $100 million, that doesn’t put less pressure on you. It just puts more pressure, to live up to the money. So I just focus in on this year, and then we’ll see what happens next year.”

It’s easy to debate which approach is right. Some think Washington should have signed Cousins when it had the advantage and he didn’t have a long résumé—say, two years ago. But back then, team president Bruce Allen had no idea Cousins would consistently be a 4,000-yard-per-season passer. So if Allen paid him like a premier player and he fizzled, he’d be stuck with an Osweiler-like contract.

Cousins can compartmentalize the contract pretty well. He knows the $43.9 million he’ll have made by the end of this year in 2016 and 2017 alone sets up him and his family (he and wife Julie had their first child, Cooper, Friday night) for life, so he doesn’t fret about the money—just the job. He knows he’ll be in demand by Washington and a couple of other teams if he hits the open market next March. So what’s there’s to worry about?

Well, playing in Kansas City, for one. “I’ve never played there, and I’ve wanted to,” he said. “Kansas City’s got an iconic stadium. I’d like to play at all of them—but it’s hard, because they keep building new stadiums.”


Football in America: Episode 2—Charlotte

We started our series (in partnership with State Farm) examining all levels of football—youth, high school, college and pro—last week with a visit to the Bay Area. This week, Jonathan Jones, Kalyn Kahler and videographer Steve Raum take us to Charlotte to explore its young football culture.

NFL
Football in America: The Charlotte Area

Jones writes about a Clemson-bound senior kicker at 12-year-old Charlotte South Pointe High, B.T. Potter, who booted a 71-yard field goal in practice and is being trolled by Clemson fans after the Tigers’ regular kicker was lost for the season. Jones writes: “Potter’s Twitter account got blown up by Clemson fans asking if he was eligible to graduate high school early and join the Tigers immediately. One fan told him they called his guidance counselor to check.” Big-time football in the south, folks.

Next week: Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Andy Dalton and the Bengals broke their winless streak to start the season with a road win over the Browns.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. He’ll look back at his career one day and think he had better games than this one. But what makes Carolina 33, New England 30 special for Newton is that it came against Tom Brady, and it came with him adjusting to a newness in the Panther offense, and it came with him still getting in peak game shape after off-season shoulder surgery. Newton completed 22 of 29 with three passing touchdowns and one rushing TD.

Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston. The kid is amazing. In camp the Texans knew he’d likely take the QB reins at some point this year, but his performance in the past two games—47 of 67, six touchdown passes, with the Texans producing 90 points—is stunning.

Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh. “I did?” That’s what Bell said when I told him had 35 carries (for 144 yards) in a 2016 Bell-like performance as the Steelers handled the Ravens 26-9. He’s on pace for 348 carries this year, and if you want to hear if he thinks he can handle that, listen to “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King” this week. I recorded Bell in the Steelers locker room Sunday afternoon.

Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. I thought he permanently had “embattled” as a mandatory adjective in front of his name, or maybe had his name changed legally to Embattled Andy Dalton. He did something about that Sunday in the Bengals’ 31-7 rout of the Browns, completing 17 of his first 18 passes, for three touchdowns and 215 yards. He finished with 286 yards and four touchdowns and, for now, calmed the Dump Dalton movement in Cincinnati.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Andre Hal, safety, Houston. Hal’s first interception of Marcus Mariota led to Houston taking a 7-0 lead early in the half, and his second short-circuited a Titans drive with Tennessee down 30-14 late in the second quarter. Hal has led an opportunistic Houston defense that’s made more plays in the back end than most people expected, and that keyed the shocking 57-14 demolition of the Titans in Houston on Sunday.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Stephen Hauschka, kicker, Buffalo. He’s tried seven field goals in the past two games—from 49, 55, 53, 27, 24, 56 and 55 yards—and made them all. The last three came in the upset of the Falcons on Sunday.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, Los Angeles Rams. He kicked seven field goals (from 49, 44, 44, 30, 28, 43 and 33 yards) and finished with 23 of the Rams’ 35 points in a dramatic win at Dallas. “Mr Automatic!” coach Sean McVay called him. In a big win, Zuerlein was the only player to get a game ball from McVay.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, New Orleans. It’s been a tough slog for the Saints, one of the most generous defenses in the league in the past few years—and the major reason why the Saints have gone 7-9 three years in a row. But in London on Sunday, Allen’s group pitched a 20-0 shutout. Only once all day did the Dolphins have a drive longer than 22 yards. On the day, the Saints had four sacks and two forced fumbles. With a bye and then three of four at home, and with the defense growing, there may be hope yet for this perennially 7-9 group.


Quotes of the Week

I

“We cannot forget the fact that sports as a whole brings people together. For the two hours, three hours, whenever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing, we know that a lot of people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they're rooting for the same thing … A lot of situations that are going on right now in our country are trying to cause division. We get nowhere divided. I stand for the national anthem, and I don't look down upon a person who doesn't feel that they want to. You have to respect another man's judgment for why they're protesting … I just hope and I pray to God that this country finds the energy and the heart to come together as a whole.”

—Cam Newton, after Carolina’s 33-30 win over New England

II

“It’s not time to panic. We’ve been through way worse than this.”

—Dolphins coach Adam Gase

Really? A 20-6 loss to the Jets followed by a 20-0 loss to the Saints. I’d say panic would be appropriate.

III

“While some people might focus on a tragic event and an evil act, to me, all I remember are the thousands of acts of kindness and love and warmth that came out of this.”

—Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, returning to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives after he was wounded and nearly killed by a gunman on a baseball field in July

IV

“It would help you make more informed decisions. At the end of the day, maybe there are guys that make the decision that, ‘I’m gonna back off now,’ because they’re dealing with [CTE].”

—Jets quarterback Josn McCown, on the news reported by Jenny Vrentas and others.

Neuropathologist Ann McKee, a leader in the CTE field, says she hopes to have a test, or series of tests, to diagnose CTE in the living sometime in the next five years. As McCown says, it could be a contributing factor for veteran players when it comes to deciding whether to keep playing football later in their careers.

V

“Whether it’s the President of the United States or somebody in the upper deck who says they’re ruining the game by not letting players bash each other to pieces, you wonder how many times they’ve been hit in the head.”

—Bob Costas, to CNN’s Michael Smerconish on Saturday


Stats of the Week

I

New Orleans running back Adrian Peterson, healthy, is on pace for a 324-yard rushing season. He’s averaging 6.8 carries per game.

II

Tom Brady might be the best quarterback of all time. At 40, he’s having one of his best seasons through one month. Which brings us to compare the Patriots’ offense passing numbers with their foes’ passing numbers:

  Passer Rating Comp Pct. TDs Yards Per Attempt
Brady 116.6 .665 10 9.0
Opposing QBs 116.5 .697 11 9.4
 

It’s unsustainable. If Belichick doesn’t figure out a defensive fix (like, overnight, with a short-week Thursday game at Tampa coming up), the shiny numbers Brady puts up will set numerous AARP records, but they won’t allow the Patriots to play in February.


Factoids That May Interest Only Me

I

“Is there any wonder why play has become so ragged and fundamentals so forgotten in today’s NFL?” writes longtime NFL scribe Rick Gosselin in his Talk of Fame Network column. In 2007, he points out, there were 11 starting lineups with an average age of less than 27; opening-day rosters, in 2017, had 24 starting lineups averaging less than 27 years of age.

II

Cal has offensive linemen named Poutasi Poutasi and Gentle Williams.


Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

Thirteen hours of a football Sunday on the East Coast:

8:28 a.m.: Leave apartment on west side of Manhattan.

8:34 a.m.: Board subway bound for New York’s Penn Station.

8:45 a.m.: Get to Penn Station, retrieve Amtrak ticket.

8:57 a.m.: Board Amtrak Acela train 2205 for Baltimore’s Penn Station.

9:01 a.m.: Depart for Baltimore. Sit in Quiet Car. Write about Kirk Cousins.

11:13 a.m.: Arrive Baltimore. Get in cab for M&T Bank Stadium.

11:59 a.m.: Walk through parking lots at stadium, see two-third Ravens fans, one-third Steelers fans. Go to press box.

1:04 p.m.: Kickoff, Steelers-Ravens.

4:18 p.m.: Steelers 26, Ravens 9. Ballgame ends. Work the locker rooms.

5:59 p.m.: Cab to Baltimore’s Penn Station with NFL.com’s Judy Battista. Nigerian-born cabbie, a U.S. citizen, tells us he voted for Donald Trump, loves Donald Trump, and it’s a disgrace that all football players don’t stand at attention for the national anthem. “If you did that in Nigeria,” he said, and he makes a slashing gesture across his throat. “America’s the great country in the world! You must respect the flag!” I said, “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘Dissent is patriotic.’ That’s part of what makes us the greatest country in the world—that freedom.” Nice guy, though. He likes the Nats in the World Series.

6:33 p.m.: Board Amtrak Acela train 2224 for New York’s Penn Station.

6:35 p.m.: Depart for New York. Sit in Quiet Car. Write about Steelers win.

8:47 p.m.: Arrive at Penn Station. Take subway home.

9:18 p.m.: Arrive back at my apartment. Get pounced on by Chuck the dog, who I believe smells my halftime crab cake from Baltimore. Ten minutes left, second quarter, in Seattle. Put on some coffee. Write.

That, friends, is one reason why I love living on this coast and in this city. The Acela, the convenience, the access, the simplicity.


Tweets of the Week

I

II

III

IV


We’re in the first month of a new section of the column called My MVP, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week, I’ll ask an NFL figure what his most valuable possession is, and why.

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington. “For me, it’s a 16-inch softball from my senior year in high school [Holland Christian High School in Holland, Mich.]. We were looking for something to do at the end of our senior year to honor the teachers who did such a great job with us in high school. We didn’t know what to do, so we decided to have a party with the teachers. We called it the Man Party. One of the teachers brought a 16-inch softball, and we played a game. After the game, everyone there signed the ball, and one of the English teachers displayed it as a memento of our class and that day. And that teacher ended up sending me the ball with a note. He said I had a big role in making that day happen, and he wanted me to have it. So I put it in a glass case, and I have it at my home now. It’s a great memento for me, from the people in high school who helped raise me and contributed to making me the person I am.”

Courtesy of Kirk Cousins

Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts. This week’s conversations: Bob Costas of NBC Sports and MLB Network, Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports 1, and Tunch Ilkin, the former Steelers guard and current 20-year Steelers radio colorman.​

• Costas on patriotism and the NFL: “At every NFL game, there is a goal line-to-goal line, field-wide-to-field-length American flag, military people showing up, often a flyover. It isn't that there is anything wrong with that, but eventually it is reinforced that that is the only thing that patriotism is about, that's the only thing that the national anthem is about. And as I said on CNN, I believe that patriotism comes in different forms. Dissidents can be still be patriots. Sometimes they aren't because their point isn't well taken or they’re actually hostile, and we don't have to agree with them, but dissidents can be patriots. Social workers are often patriots. Schoolteachers are often patriots. Patriotism is not more a conservative idea than it is a moderate or liberal idea. But somehow through symbolism and reinforcement, it has come to mean, for many people, only one set of values—and it is especially meant to be associated with the military. So anytime anyone protests in connection with the national anthem, it is taken that they are disrespecting the military and disrespecting their service. I don't think that that's a textured view of what is going on.”

• Costas on playing the anthem before sports events: “This is going to be misunderstood, and you and I both understand about being misunderstood. If you go to the theater to see “Hamilton,” it is about the founding of the republic, and no one says, wait a minute, how can they start without the national anthem? … The anthem has been directly associated with sports, understandably so, because sports cuts across so many demographic lines and it can be a uniting force, and you can get goosebumps hearing the national anthem. On the other hand, national anthem 81 times a year at Yankee Stadium, and at the seventh inning stretch, 81 times a year, “God Bless America,” people say keep politics out of sports, but that subliminally represents a certain kind of view that goes beyond universal love of country … This is might sound like heresy, but the national anthem might resonate more if it was reserved for special occasions. Opening day. Memorial Day. The Fourth of July. The All-Star Game. The World Series. Or in the aftermath of a great national event, be it a tragic event, God forbid, terrorist attacks, hurricanes or some sort of great shared national triumph or moment of celebration. If it was used selectively to mark those occasions, then I think it would have more meaning for many people.”

• Whitlock on Donald Trump the Twitter troll: “He is the Troller in Chief, and he has been trolling America for at least a decade. And I think that we in the media and public figures, our addiction to Twitter, in particular make us think, oh my God, Donald Trump has said something incredible! But if we just evaluate what Donald Trump has been doing for the last decade, he is right on brand … Somehow, him using the word SOB metaphorically is the bridge too far? It’s a joke, and it’s proof that we are living way too much on Twitter and in the internet world where this is a big deal. But in reality if you just judge Donald Trump, this is nothing. This doesn’t crack the top 100 things he has ever said.”

• Whitlock on how players and the NFL fell for Trump’s bait: “I include ownership, coaches, executives, Roger Goodell. He baited us, and they fell for it unbelievably. Oh my God, he says we shouldn’t kneel, so let’s everybody kneel together. Let’s show Donald Trump! … Everybody that Trump says something bad about should go absolutely batcrap then. Did President Obama go batcrap? Did Senator McCain go batcrap? Is there no standard we can hold African-American athletes to? … So there is an opportunity and I think a responsibility to put away emotion and occasionally act strategically when someone is trolling you. These guys are involved in a business where they make millions of dollars, and Trump just baited them into being adversarial with their customer base.”

NFL
A Steeler’s Perspective on the 2017 NFL Protests and the 1987 Players Strike
Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan was suspended two games for this helmet-to-helmet hit on Davante Adams.
Matt Lutdke/AP

1. I think these are my brief truths of Week 4:

a. Two games for Danny Trevathan is the least he should have gotten suspended for the ugly hit on Davante Adams. I don’t believe Trevathan was trying to hit him helmet-to-helmet. But in this case, it doesn’t matter. It happened.

b. And I like Trevathan—the way he plays, the man he is. Hits like that simply must get a major sanction, to ensure the players and the public know that helmet-to-helmet car crashes simply won’t be tolerated, no matter whether they’re intentional or not.

c. If Dalvin Cook has a torn ACL, as is suspected, the most electric rookie runner in the NFC will be lost until next season. With the quarterback injuries the Vikes have suffered, it’s hard to imagine them making a playoff run now.

d. Backup backs on bad teams are usually ignored. Bilal Powell should not be. The Jets are lucky to have him.

e. Cam Heyward makes three or four impact plays every game. His best one Sunday was when he snuffed out a Baltimore drive in the second quarter with a brute-force-rush sack.

f. Bill Parcells Memorial Clock-Eating Scoring Drive of the Season: The Bills drove 82 yards in 19 plays, using 11 minutes 20 seconds of game clock, and kicked a field goal in Atlanta.

g. Great video by the NBC crew, showing Jimmy Graham flying to work in Seattle in his seaplane, landing on Lake Washington next to the Seahawks’ facility.

h. Great info nugget by Michele Tafoya just before halftime, talking about how in pregame warmups Seattle kicker Blair Walsh was having trouble kicking into the end zone where Seattle was about to attempt a field goal on the last play of the half. Sure enough, Walsh pushed a 37-yarder wide right.  

i. Not throwing a pity party for the Giants at 0-4, but losing two straight games on field goals on the last play of the game … kind of a brutal way to live.

j. I don’t know how many more big catches Larry Fitzgerald will make in his career. But he is still a huge threat, and even when the Niners knew Carson Palmer would look for him consistently as the final seconds ticked off the clock in overtime Sunday, he won another game with another big touchdown catch. What a special player.

2. I think I have this message for Jimmy and Dee Haslam, as they wake up from a restless night and to a Browns team at 0-4: First, you never make good decisions when you’re angry, or you’re tired. Second, you’re going to go backwards by firing anyone now, or after the season, barring some unforeseen development. Stay the course, stay off social media, and don’t listen to the radio.

3. I think the Raiders, a bit, were victims of their off-season excitement and early success. I still remember Jack Del Rio pumping the brakes with me at training camp on the Super Bowl express, pointing out the Chiefs had won 11 in a row in the division while the Raiders were 3-3 in AFC West games last year. Now, the Chiefs are on a 12-game AFC West winning streak, and the Raiders are 3-4 in their last seven games in the division. Now that Derek Carr has a back issue, it’s a legit question whether Oakland will even make it to January, especially with rising teams like Buffalo coming out of nowhere. We’ll see.

4. I think Indy GM Chris Ballard made one heck of a trade for Jacoby Brissett (acquiring him a month ago for wideout Phillip Dorsett), and that’s even if Brissett settles into a backup role when Andrew Luck is healthy enough to play. Brissett is self-assured, has a great arm and possesses the ability to throw into tight windows downfield—if his early play in Indy is true to him. Plus, as NBC cameras caught Sunday night, Brissett is never afraid to show his passion—a trait he might have picked up from Tom Brady—and light into teammates on the sidelines when necessary.

5. I think one of the benefits of actually going to games rather than sitting and monitoring them and then talking to players and coaches post-game is you get to see and hear the real stuff on site. In the bowels of M&T Bank Stadium, with the Steelers coming off the field after dominating Baltimore, Mike Tomlin said loudly to the players within earshot: “Hey! We got a hot J-ville [Jacksonville] team coming to town next week! Whacked these guys [Baltimore] worse than we did. Let’s get ready to work!” Setting the stage already.

6. I think, not to make a big deal of it in a game in which the whole team stunk, Joe Flacco looked awful on Sunday. “I sucked,” he said. He knew. To have a passer rating of 65.0 is awful—and to have a rating 26.7 points lower than Blake Bortles this morning is even worse.

7. I think Jimmy Graham’s just not the same player now that he was in New Orleans.

8. I think I’d watch NFL advertisers this week. If a major one breaks ranks and comes out and says it’s considering dropping its NFL sponsorship, you’ll see ownership work hard to mollify players. It’s a touchy time.

9. I think—no, I know—that, if I were Giants GM Jerry Reese, I would not offer the unrepentant Odell Beckham Jr., a long-term contract until I see whether he can keep his distracting emotions and behavior in check. If that means they risk losing him, so be it. Beckham’s blasé and unapologetic reaction three days after he faux-urinated on the field to celebrate a touchdown in Philadelphia also tells me there’s no one in the organization who can talk sense into Beckham, which is also worrisome.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. Important Story of the Week: The staff of the New York Times, on a day in the life of hurricane-ravaged and neglected Puerto Rico. A superb look at a disaster we need to address with more fervor as a country.

b. So … I’m not going to make this a political issue, or comment on our government’s handling of the post-hurricane life of this island. I am just going to say this: Puerto Rico is an American territory. Those born in Puerto Rico are American citizens. Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military since 1899. Residents of the island (population: 3.4 million) annually pay more than $3 billion in taxes to our federal government. Now Puerto Rico has been devastated as ruthlessly as any time in its history by a natural disaster. It’s great that we in this country go all-out to help areas of Texas and Florida when hurricanes and flooding struck recently. We need to be good responders to our friends in Puerto Rico too. The first lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Rossello, began the United for Puerto Rico fund that has garnered support in the philanthropic community. And Save The Children has boots on the ground to help with food and clothing and baby and child supplies that are so sorely needed in this disaster. I’d urge you to help if you can.

c. Football Story of the Week: Kyle Meinke of MLive.com on Lions long-snapper Don Muhlbach, who played his 200th game for the franchise Sunday in Minnesota—tied for third in the glorious history of the Detroit Lions. A quick clip:

Muhlbach started long-snapping as a young high-schooler in Lufkin, Texas, to have something to do while his ride home, the punter on the football team, practiced after the regular practice.

d. Great story, great factoid on a player no one notices but who’s really good at his job. That, folks, is how to write a great feature story on a guy no one knows.

e. Sign of the Times Story of the Week: From Scooby Axson of Sports Illustrated, a former soldier in the Army. He favors players doing what they want during the national anthem. It’s a logical piece. Axson writes, “I don’t feel disrespected if a person chooses not to stand for the national anthem. I fought for your ability to make that choice. What is disrespectful is the use of the great military as the basis to deny some citizens freedom of expression.” 

f. Obit of the Week: Laura Mansnerus of the New York Times, on the passing of Hugh Hefner, at 91. Great last line of the obituary: “Mr. Hefner will be buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, where he bought the mausoleum drawer next to Marilyn Monroe.”

g. Liz Clarke Note of the Week, a nod to the greatest Springsteen fan I know: I talked to someone who attended a formal rehearsal for Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show Friday night. The show is a combination of Springsteen telling life stories, some of them heartily depressing, and Springsteen singing (including “Born To Run,” slowly and soulfully), and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa singing together (including “Tougher Than the Rest”), and then telling some more life stories. My friend who went cried. Evidently it’s a heck of a show, though not like a rollicking Springsteen stadium performance.

h. This is how amazing Jose Altuve is: He has 225, 200, 216 and 205 hits the past four seasons; all-time hits leader Pete Rose never had four straight seasons of at least 200 hits.

i. This is how amazing Ichiro is: In each his first 10 major-league seasons, he had at least 200 hits.

j. How great to see Matt Cain throw five shutout innings in San Francisco in the last baseball game of his MLB career. That’s what he did Saturday.

k. Fifty years ago Sunday, the 100-to-1 shot Red Sox won the 1967 American League pennant. I could live to be 101, and that will be the pennant race of my lifetime. From Aug. 31 until Oct. 1, Boston was never more than a game ahead in the standings, or more than a game behind. In the second half of the season, the Red Sox played 13 doubleheaders. Thirteen!

l. Game 1 of the Boston-Houston ALDS series: Chris Sale at Justin Verlander. Now that’s going to be a good event, and New Englanders are likely hoping it will be a day game, saving them from channel-flipping with the Patriots in a Thursday-nighter at Tampa Bay.

m. Some great drama in the Red Sox’s division-clinching win over Houston on Saturday. In game 161 of the 162-game season, David Price (the highly paid one, who came back from an arm injury and was made an Andrew Miller-like lefty specialist who could pitch anytime in relief) came out of the bullpen in the top of the seventh, up 5-2, tying run at the plate, no outs, to try to save the division title. Price got three outs without allowing an inherited runner to score, in the rain, with Price striking out George Springer, a New Englander from Connecticut who went to UConn, for the last out. Pretty good.

n. Now would be a good time to remind you of my baseball genius. Preseason NL MVP pick: Kyle Schwarber, Cubs. Batted .211. Hitting so badly early in the season he got sent to Triple-A for a couple of weeks. Did hit 30 homers, but this was not my finest prediction. Preseason AL MVP pick: Rougned Odor, Texas. Batted .204. Had one of the worst on-base percentages (.252) of a non-pitcher in baseball. Did hit 30 homers, but this one was ever worse than Schwarber.

o. Preseason Cy Young picks: Masahiro Tanaka and Kyle Hendricks. Oops. Went a combined 20-17, with respective ERAs of 4.74 and 3.03.

p. I did get four of the five playoff teams right in each league, including Colorado and the Yankees. Missed on Arizona (picked the Giants) and Minnesota (picked Texas).

q. Preseason World Series pick: Astros over Cubs in 5.

r. Today’s World Series pick: Astros over Cubs in 7.

s. Coffeenerdness: There is no smell like freshly ground Italian Roast from Starbucks. Worth the price of admission. Coffee is superb too. My favorite drip.

t. Winenerdness: I neglected to praise a highly praiseworthy cabernet last week when I wrote about Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, from Walla Walla Valley in Washington. I had a glass in New York when I saw it on a menu (I’d always wanted to try his wine), and it was terrific—rich and fruity and smooth. An excellent cab. When I heard Bledsoe was involved in the wine business, I knew he’d only put his hand in it if he could make a very good product. This is.

u. Since the death of a Steely Dan founder Walter Becker a month ago, and since I got an Amazon Echo Dot, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat at my desk and said, “Alexa, shuffle Steely Dan songs.” I put the volume way down and work, sometimes for long periods, to the library of this great music. Rediscoveries after all these years: “Bad Sneakers,” “Any Major Dude,” “Midnight Cruiser,” and the song playing in my head as I write these words: “Any World (That I’m Welcome To).” Listen to the genius. How about “Change of the Guard?” That’s been forgotten over time, but it’s a great song.

v. RIP Dave Strader, the voice of the Dallas Stars, who fought cancer with tenacity and dignity, and who brought hockey to prominence for so many Texans.

w. News of the Las Vegas concert shooting was unfolding as I was finishing this column. My thoughts are with the victims and their families.


Who I Like Tonight

Kansas City 30, Washington 22. Well, this could be the Monday night game of the year, so I think we’ll all like the game. But a particularly dramatic part of the evening could come in the ESPN pre-game show (6-8:20 p.m. ET), with Michelle Beisner’s piece on former Kansas City and Washington coach Marty Schottenheimer, who is in the early stages of suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Beisner is sensitive and touches the right notes, letting Schottenheimer and wife Pat tell the story; it’s the mark of a good reporter to know when to let the story tell itself, and Beisner is excellent in that role here. At one point, Beisner asks Schottenheimer about whether one game sticks out for him in his career, and Pat jostles his memory and reminds him of the 1994 Joe Montana-John Elway classic Monday-nighter, with Montana in his Chiefs’ cameo years winning with a dramatic late touchdown pass, and Schottenheimer smiles.

“What do you remember about that game?” Beisner asks.

Schottenheimer, sitting across from her, thinks for a moment. “To be honest with you,” Schottenheimer says, “I don’t remember a lot about it.”

Well worth your time tonight before the game. Here’s a trailer of the story.


The Adieu Haiku

Hey, Bills Mafia.
You’re in first place. Think it lasts?
McDermott fans, eh?

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